An Interview with Diane Ackerman
1) We think of writers as being temperamental, hyper-sensitive, high-strung, self-absorbed—in short, very hard to live with! But you and your husband have been together for more than forty years! How did you do it?
It wasn’t always fun and games—we also fought at times, using words as edged weapons. Trust a writer to come up with unusual slurs! Sometimes they were so funny that we’d crack up laughing and the quarrel would be over; once humor enters the argument it’s hard to keep fighting. Paul was an alcoholic for many years, and domineering, though also thin-skinned; he used to tease that he was “a sensitive tyrant.” Like all artists we could be “hyper-sensitive, high-strung, and self-absorbed.”
But living with anyone for many years takes skill. To keep peace in the household, couples learn to adapt to each other, hopefully in positive ways. Laughter and humor helped to put things in perspective. Play relieved the tension in the relationship, eased the inevitable setbacks and disappointments, and renewed intimacy and acceptance. In any relationship, there’s always the other, the welcome and desired other, and the fine art of negotiating your time and space together. Much as you may love someone, alone moments when you don’t have to agree on anything can feel like a gift from heaven. After all these years, I found his new habit of waking when I did confusing and even a little irritating, because it meant I lost a special realm. At the moment, we go to bed at 11:00 p.m., but he wakes up instinctively at 3 a.m., to work until 6 a.m., when I wake up, and then he goes back to sleep for a few hours. So we once again have private time zones in which to work.
2) It is a truism that lovers have their own language. You take it even further when you write, “In time, a pair invents its own commonwealth, complete with anthems, rituals, and lingos.” Is this something that gets intensified when both of the lovers are writers?
Very much so. Words completely enchanted us. We read lots of books, and wrote many ourselves. We adored making colorful phrases, and finding new ways to describe the world. But we were also immensely playful and childlike, so in our off-duty hours, when we weren’t writing or teaching—and not using language in the countless grown-up ways that people normally do—we played with words. Words became exciting, flexible toys that we could share, gluing them together in all sorts of crazy ways, sometimes romantically but mainly just for fun. Kids sometimes build tree houses, off-limits to adults, in which they meet in a tiny secret society. Words were our tree house.
We created our own elaborate dialect (which I describe in the book), and improvised word games. One example: Paul would serenade me with ad-lib operettas and little ditties, in which he would sing about my physical attributes or habits. We enjoyed punning, renaming the household objects, redefining words based on what they sounded like they should mean, concocting riddles, mispronouncing names of things on purpose, and tossing lots of rhyming words into a single sentence (ex: “In the Middle Ages, the sage pages rampaged in stages”).
We created a private mythology of imaginary creatures. I don’t reveal them in the book, but here’s one example. When I complained of suddenly having a small tummy bulge, Paul wanted to reassure me, so he lovingly stroked my tummy and said it was nothing to worry about because it was simply full of baby kangaroos. Kangaroos live in pouches, women have wombs that are pouches, therefore humans are really marsupials. From then on the imaginary kangaroos in my tummy became part of our affectionate menagerie. They were all girls with a fetish for having their hair brushed. He would put his ear down and listen to them, ask them funny questions and report what they were saying. We also had imaginary hopping spiders (which dispensed “spider cuddles”), and we pretended to be prairie voles, harvest mice, kissel panthers (which stalked and pounced, scaring the other person, but only to bestow kisses), and all sorts of other hybrid animals, just to show our affection in creative ways. I assume other couples play equally smoochy games. And Paul loved inventing piropos for me, the Latin American flirtation of paying women cleverly expressed compliments, such as “You are a park for my eyes.”
3) Your work before this book has ranged from the best-selling A Natural History of the Senses to the runaway success The Zookeeper’s Wife, a work of historical nonfiction about a zoo in Poland during the Second World War. Yet people like Antonio Damasio and Atul Gawande have called One Hundred Names for Love your best book yet. How did those other books prepare you to write One Hundred Names for Love, and how does it fit into your work as a whole?
Few of my readers know that I wrote The Zookeeper’s Wife, and then Dawn Light, while the events of One Hundred Names for Love were unfolding. In many ways, writing Zookeeper was my sanctuary and an important source of strength. The woman I write about in Zookeeper was a much more valiant caregiver than I could ever hope to be. She didn’t just want the people in her care to survive, she wanted them to survive with their humanity intact.
I’m sure it isn’t a coincidence that I was writing a book about a secret caregiver, in the land my ancestors came from, at precisely the time I was learning to be a caregiver myself.
Antonina had an almost mystical relationship with animals and nature, and I do, too. One way in which I would nourish myself as a caregiver was to go out in nature and learn what everyday miracles had taken place overnight and look at them with curiosity and wonder. That might just mean a walk through the woods or garden. It might just be a few minutes, but I always found it replenishing. Dawn Light is a tribute to the wonders of nature and the everyday magic of being alive.
All of these things (and more) came into play while I was dealing with the very intense and, in many ways, traumatic events of Paul’s stroke, the difficulty of having Paul at home and looking after him when I couldn’t understand a word he was saying, and my determination to rebuild our world.
4) Words obviously mean a lot to both of you. How did it feel for you when Paul suddenly was unable to speak or write?
My whole world collapsed, and I felt abandoned in a flat silent desert. I hurt all over my body but in no place I could point to. I felt agonizingly alone. Paul was the only person I had ever felt normal with. Suddenly I was all alone with my creative flights of fancy, synesthesia, wordplay, and passion for both poetry and science. Who would understand me?
5) Did you find other ways to communicate?
Almost at once I began exploring new ways to communicate, through affection, gestures, pantomime, facial expressions, animal sounds, play. But especially affection, which communicates wordlessly and so well. Our nonverbal behaviors—the way we look at, listen, and react to someone—can send strong messages. They can convey a sense of interest, trust, love, and especially the desire to stay connected. This isn’t something that takes learning, because we’re always giving and receiving wordless signals without realizing it, from the way we stand or sit to how much eye contact we make or how loud or fast we speak. It’s just a matter of being aware of it and doing it on purpose.
6) What is your sense of how Paul felt? Did the fact that you’d been married for so long make it more possible for you to know what was going on inside him?
Our mental worlds were different enough that I couldn’t always guess what he was thinking. By definition someone with aphasia can’t tell you much about their inner life. But in time, after he relearned language, he was able to tell me in great detail, and it was eye-opening to say the least. For instance, he said that, at the time of the stroke, he felt very different from before, newly embedded in himself, as if trapped in statuary. His room seemed to be full of Hopi dancers and dazzling as Mardi Gras. Almost festive. He felt his teeth blink. Something pagan was going on, with a mad ring to it, like a disturbed vibraphone. People were speaking a foreign language. And they didn’t seem aware of the pandemonium light show and noisy chaos he was enduring. And almost at once he began to hear three voices in his head instead of one.
7) When Paul started to talk again, words that most of us would consider difficult—words that most of us don’t even know, like "tesseract"—came to him more easily than simple words like "telephone." How could that be?
My hunch is that words we learn as children are processed by the key language areas of the brain—which were killed in Paul’s stroke—but that the words we learn as adults, professionally, in hobbies, as a foreign language, are processed elsewhere. Once he had access to those words—many of which I understood—we had a way to communicate a little. Very metaphorically at first, almost in runes. He’d say things in weird roundabout ways, some of which were very poetic or funny, and I had to decipher what he really meant.
8) We ordinary people and even a lot of doctors and therapists tend to treat an adult who can’t speak as if he or she were a child. Does it seem that the medical establishment in general tends to treat sick people like children? Do you think that has an effect on the healing process?
Yes, I do. Remember the old adage: "You can’t tell a book by its cover"? When someone has a speaking disorder, they may sound a bit like a child trying to talk, and people often assume they don’t have a smart, grown-up mind chattering away inside. But they do. The inner monologue is still there, and they know what they want to say. The brain’s wiring has been snipped and they can no longer retrieve the right words or move the mouth to utter them. It also means we need to help them explore novel ways to communicate, ones tailor-made to their own interests and strengths. Everyone has a different history, different hobbies, and passions. Alas, we often underestimate them, and don’t believe they’re capable of improving.
9) You write of wordplay and language games having a huge role in Paul’s recovery. From your point of view as a science writer, is there real evidence that play can actually be healing?
Yes, as many studies have shown, hope, acceptance by others, and belief in one’s ability to heal correlate highly with positive outcomes. Play helps children learn about the world and feel at home in it; it literally shapes the brain. The same is true for adults—play helps the brain to grow new connections and find unused pathways. Play is essential for creative problem-solving, for trying new things and making discoveries. Play connects us to others in richly rewarding ways. It triggers the release of endorphins, which lifts the mood, and helps to focus the brain, making hard work pleasurable, and it boosts creativity. Paradoxically, play is relaxing and calming at the same time that it’s stimulating. Laughter provides the brain with more oxygen, lowers blood pressure, and strengthens the immune system. So it recharges us, excites and energizes us.
10) As a writer, would you go even further to say that wordplay, in particular, might have a role in mental, emotional, even physical health?
Emotionally, few things are as comforting as finding the right words for what we experience and how we feel. We don’t really know how we feel about something until we put it in words. Without the paperweight of words, ideas float away and vanish into an inconsequential distance. Language helps to clarify and shape thought. We remember hues better if we know their names. A famous study of aging nuns showed that those who used more complex sentence structures and thought patterns were less likely to develop Alzheimer’s as they aged. Many other studies have confirmed that exercising the brain—whether it’s by reading a thought-provoking book, doing crossword puzzles, learning a language, or being actively engaged in a variety of other intellectual pursuits can reduce one’s risk of dementia.
11) Should doctors prescribe a daily dose of poetry?
Wouldn’t that be wonderful? Among other things, poems are vats of mindfulness. In a high-speed, easily distracted world, poets take the time to pay attention to things, all the subtle human dramas, predicaments, and feelings, including the countless feelings for which we have no name. Words are human-made, but feelings aren’t. As a result, much of our experience from birth to death remains inexpressible because we can’t find the right words for it. By combining words in subtly charged ways, poets bridge some of those spaces and give a voice to our deepest sense of humanity.
12) You have written many books about nature, and your study of the natural world is obviously more than just an intellectual pursuit. It seems that you find a great deal of solace and a kind of spiritual sustenance in nature. Yet nature did this horrible thing to your husband. How does that square with your worldview?
If only nature were a personage who could be flattered, bribed, appealed to in some way, and blamed for bad luck, bad design, or bad choices, a green-robed titan wielding lightning and pestilence. Or delivering golden eggs. But nature is a seamless web of infinite ingredients and life forms. So there’s no one to blame. The great adventure of being alive on our crazy blue planet in space includes all the accidents, gifts, and mindless (but nonetheless clever) strategems of evolution, including some that plague and destroy us.
My poem, I Praise My Destroyer, ends with these stanzas:
But there was never a dull torment,
and it was grace to live
among the fruits of summer, to love by design,
and walk the startling Earth
for what seemed
an endless resurrection of days.
I praise life’s bright catastrophes,
and all the ceremonies of grief.
I praise our real estate—a shadow and a grave.
I praise my destroyer,
and will continue praising
until hours run like mercury
through my fingers, hope flares a final time
in the last throes of innocence,
and all the coins of sense are spent.
- As Diane Ackerman so beautifully describes, life can change utterly in an instant, leaving us feeling like complete strangers in a world we thought we knew. Describe a moment when this happened to you. How did you get your bearings? How did Diane?
- Diane writes that any marriage or relationship that has existed over a long period of time is actually several marriages (or relationships), as there are different stages and colors of love over a lifetime. Have you experienced this? How would you describe your “different” loves or stages of love?
- Diane’s husband, as a poet, novelist, and professor, had a complex “professional” language learned in young adulthood. Does your profession in any way have its own language? If you were to speak only that, what would it sound like?
- Most of us fall into the most common pet names for our lovers: honey, sweetie, babe, darling. Which ones speak to you and which ones make you cringe? Why do some feel right and others not? What do they evoke? Try inventing five (or one hundred!) new names for your love. Do they make you see your relationship any differently? Make it a party game—spin the bottle and make the one it points to reveal his or her silliest pet name!
- Every religion teaches us about suffering and how to cope with it. What did your religious (or nonreligious) upbringing teach you about this? What struck you about Diane’s coping strategies and spiritual resources? How are they alike or different from your own?
- Despite the difficulties encountered in this book, there is considerable humor in it. What were your favorite funny moments? Do you remember funny moments that got you through a dark time? How is this kind of humor different from “making fun of” or “making light of” a tough situation? Looking back, do those moments still make you laugh?
- What did you take away from this book about what is most precious in life for Diane? For you?